“Born Again,” A Murderous Shibboleth

by Brian Walsh

So what’s wrong with being “born again”? In my last blog I suggested that the term “born again” is a ‘shibboleth.’ You remember where this word ‘shibboleth’ comes from, right? In Judges chapter 12 the Gileadites engage in genocide against the Ephraimites. But how do you know who an Ephraimite is and who is not an Ephraimite?

Well, when the men of Gilead met someone who they suspected of being an Ephraimite they asked him to say ‘shibboleth’ and if they replied ‘sibboleth’ then their accent and their inability to make the ‘sh’ sound in this word was proof that they were Ephraimites and they were then killed.

Nice stuff.

So when I say that being ‘born again’ is a shibboleth I am saying that this term functions as a foundational boundary marker of who is in and who is out, and that such boundary markers are a matter of death to those who are out.

Wait a minute, you say. Is Walsh saying that born again Christians want to kill anyone who is not one of them? Umm, well … yes, that is what I am saying.

Think about if for a minute. If you are not born again, then what are you? Well, you are not a Christian. And in ‘born again’ theology what happens to those who are not born again? They go to hell! So yes, I am saying that this particular shibboleth functions as all shibboleths function, to justify death – eternal death and damnation – to any who cannot or will not use this particular language.

That’s a bit of a stretch you say. It’s not as if born again Christians are going around killing people. At worse, their theology leaves the killing for God to accomplish.

I’m not so sure. To begin with, as a campus minister and lecturer I have met hundreds of people who have been killed by born again Christianity. Hundreds of people who have had their faith sucked out of them because they could not say ‘born again’ with the proper evangelical accent and enthusiasm. Hundreds of people who had their Christian faith killed because it could not conform to the constricted and narrow theology of the evangelicalism in which they were raised.

So yes, born again Christianity is killing people. Indeed, it tends to sacrifice its own children, and such a thing is not uncommon amongst idolatrous religions. And you may reply that this is a metaphorical killing. But killing it is.

Murder by metaphor.

But born again Christianity also engages in literal murder. On one level this is a theology that anticipates the suffering and violent deaths of millions of the world’s inhabitants during the Great Tribulation. It ought not surprise anyone that a faith that will condemn to hell those who will not use its particular shibboleth would then also have an eschatology that anticipates precisely such a genocide.

But there is one other way in which this is a murderous faith. There is no coincidence in the linking of the Religious Right and evangelical ‘born again’ faith. I know that there is a shift underway in the evangelical movement that has seen, or perhaps might see, the waning of the Religious Right. Check these sites out for more on that:

Emergent Village
Jesus for President
Revolution in Jesusland

And I see in this a movement of the Spirit of God. But we cannot move forward as a Christian community that seeks justice in the context of a dynamic relationship to Jesus and the kingdom that he brings, without facing the horrors of a born again Christianity that has legitimated a conservative politics that supports increased military expenditures, the ‘war on terror’, nationalism, unjust trade agreements, the death penalty, decreased support for the poorest of the poor, extreme individualism, capitalist greed, and despoliation of God’s good creation.

Okay, so I’ve been on a bit of a rant here. And I know that some of my friends are going to be upset with what I’ve written. But it seems to me that we have to face up to the evil that this ‘born again’ movement has been.

I was born again when I was sixteen years old. And it was a rebirth. I look upon that process of my conversion as a birth experience. My life, my true life as a child of God, as a son of my Father, began when I turned to Jesus. But the first time I walked into an evangelical church where everyone talked the talk of being ‘born again’ I had a disquieting feeling that what they were talking about wasn’t what I experienced when my life was turned to following Jesus and his kingdom. I’ve struggled with this all of my life.

So what do I do? Give up on the language of being ‘born again’ because it has become a murderous shibboleth? Or insist on reclaiming it?

You know, it’s one little metaphor in a Bible rich with metaphor. I think I can let this one go.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

4 Responses to ““Born Again,” A Murderous Shibboleth”

  1. Chris Jones

    Thanks Brian for your insights. I was “murdered” by the “imputed righteousness” phrase. I discovered that many of my evangelical brother and sisters believed we are set free from sin and death through believing in a doctrine and not through the empowering presence of the Spirit that is poured out on those you trust Jesus as “President”.

  2. Erika Kivik


    well, first, obviously I agree that “born again” language can murder people. good metaphor.


    Being in Eastern Europe at the moment, I’ve found that the evangelical church here is more purist than progressive–and, understandably so. They are so darned excited about worshiping in freedom (and so openly opposed by so much of the culture here) that they guard their faith very carefully. So…certain things (like, for example, using swear words) really confuse them. In other words, I’m not sure that the church here has the luxury yet of letting go of the “cultural stuff” (described below). Do they?

    What about the guy who left your class? Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit strange about so quickly shedding all the stuff that is “culturally Christian” (e.g., ‘born again’ and other Christian-ese rhetoric) but doesn’t get at the heart of Jesus. While you and I (and about a zillion other people) may agree that the “cultural stuff” is a wall, an illusion that confuses and may actually lead people away from the simplicity of the message of Christ…is the answer to simply allow people to leave conversations and classrooms? …maybe. I don’t know.

  3. Liz

    This is brilliant.

    Someone once told me that when you’ve seen the reality of the world (in the context of time spent in South Asia among those who are poor), a born again theology can’t speak to the greatness of the Divine in the midst of the suffering of the world. I definitely agree that the North American evangelical marriage of born again theology and conservative politics only works when your worldview is as small as the size of the US. I love my born again friends, especially those who are from Majority World countries; and I know that they feel this theology does speak to who God is in the context of their lives. But I agree with you that it’s an exclusive theology; it inhibits ecumenism, limits the greatness of God, and I think fails to offer an invitation to faith that is culturally adaptable.

    I was born again at age 3 and in the context of my spiritual journey that looks like one of many similar experiences of meeting Jesus and offering my life again to Him. Salvation really is a journey not a fixed point in time and I’m glad you called this out.

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